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Using Napoleon’s 19th Century Principles for Email Writing

“In this age, in past ages, in any age… Napoleon.”
(The Duke of Wellington)

This is a short post reflecting upon Napoleon’s writing on war and efficient management. I think many of his principles are universal and apply to communication — my special consideration here is writing of emails, which is a vital skill because 1) you want your message to be read and replied! and 2) to get to that end, you need to learn how to write in a concise way.

Napoleon will help you to get there…

Quote 1:

“Reconnaissance memoranda should always be written in the simplest style and be purely descriptive. They should never stray from their objective by introducing extraneous ideas.”

First of all, write simple text. Avoid using complicated words and ambiguity (– expressions that can be interpreted in many ways). Oftentimes I see sentences that have ambiguity (or, in fact I myself writing them — when that happens, I instantly make it more clear so that there is absolutely no room for misinterpretation).

Quote 2:

“The art of war does not require complicated maneuvers; the simplest are the best, and common sense is fundamental. From which one might wonder how it is generals make blunders; it is because they try to be clever.”

The goal should never be to appear smart of whatever type; only to communicate your message efficiently. As I’ve said in other contexts, clear writing reflects clear thinking — and especially when it comes to writing emails, this is the only image you want to convey of yourself.

Quote 3:

“Think over carefully the great enterprise you are about to carry out; and let me know, before I sign your final orders, your own views as to the best way of carrying it out.”

In other words, make it easy for people to reply by asking for their opinion (when it’s such a matter their opinion would be useful). Write so that it’s easy to reply — e.g., don’t give too many choices or add any unnecessary layers of complexity.

Oftentimes I see messages which require considerable thinking to reply, and then it of course gets delayed or canceled altogether. Writing an email is like servicing a client; everything from the recipient’s part needs to be made as easy as possible.

Quote 4:

“This letter is the principle instruction of your plan of campaign, and if unforeseen events should occur, you will be guided in your conduct by the spirit of this instruction.”

This is actually the only quote where I disagree with Napoleon. Let me explain why. His rationale was based on the information asymmetry between him and his local officers. The officers have more immediate information; first of all, because of this it’s impossible to write a detailed instruction which would optimally consider the local circumstances, especially since they might change in the course of delivering the message (remember, in Napoleon’s day communication had a delay of even up to many days depending on the troops’ location).

Second, if the local officers were to verify each action, the delay in communication would result in losing crucial opportunities. In a word, decentralization of decision-making was essential for Napoleon. Napoleon himself explains it like this:

“The Emperor cannot give you positive orders, but only general instructions (objectives) because the distance is already considerable and will become greater still.”

However, in email communications the situation is different. First of all, there’s no communication lag, at least in the practical sense. Second of all, leaving things “open” for the recipient requires more cognitive effort from them, which in my experience leads to lower response rates and delays.

So, I’d say: Tell exactly what you want the other party to do. Don’t hint or imply – if you expect something to happen, make it clear. Oftentimes I see messages that are thought half-way through: the sender clearly implies that the recipient should finish his or her thinking. Not a good idea. Think the course of events through beforehand so that the recipient doesn’t have to.

More about Napoleon can be read from his memoirs, available at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3567

The author teaches and studies digital marketing at the Turku School of Economics.

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